Eli Wallach’s time in Texas helped shape him

Ken Bridges, Special to the Herald Democrat
Eli Wallach is seen here in a publicity photo with Maureen Stapleton from the play “The Rose Tattoo.” (courtesy photo)

“I never dreamed I would do westerns,” commented the one-time Texan and legendary actor Eli Wallach. In his career, he appeared in dozens of westerns, including some of the most well-known westerns of the 1960s. The native New Yorker had some of his most important early lessons in acting and life in the west as a young man in Texas and would go on to appear in nearly one hundred films.

Eli Herschel Wallach was born in Brooklyn, New York, in December 1915. His parents, both Polish immigrants, came to become business owners. His parents had one other son and two daughters in addition to the future actor. While each of his siblings became teachers, Wallach gravitated to acting. “I always wanted to tell stories and act,” he later recalled.

After graduating high school in 1932, Wallach enrolled at the University of Texas. Austin was about as far from his New York upbringing as possible, but Wallach quickly fit in.

The university did not have a formal theater major at that point. However, the university did have an active student stage group which attracted a very unique mix of students. Wallach developed his acting skills in plays along with fellow student actors Walter Cronkite, the future journalist, and John Connally, the future governor. It was also in Texas where Wallach said he learned to ride a horse, which became an important part of some of his most famous roles. He graduated from UT in 1936.

As World War II approached, Wallach enlisted in the army. He originally worked as a medic but worked his way up to becoming a hospital administrator. Wallach was honorably discharged with the rank of captain in 1945.

When he returned to New York, he worked to refine his skills through local theater groups. He landed his first Broadway role not long after he arrived in 1945. His skills were quickly noted as he earned a prestigious Tony Award for his role in “The Rose Tattoo” in 1951. He found time for family, marrying actress Anne Jackson in 1948; and the two remained together for the rest of their years.

In 1956, Wallach appeared in his first film role, Baby Doll, a tale of revenge set in a small Mississippi town and co-starring Karl Malden. In his dozens of screen appearances, Wallach appeared with some of the most noted actors of the time. He co-starred with Edward G. Robinson in Seven Thieves in 1960 and appeared as the notorious bandit Calvera in the popular western The Magnificent Seven the same year with Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, and Yul Brynner. The next year Wallach appeared in The Misfits, which featured the last roles of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. In 1962, he co-starred in How the West Was Won with Henry Fonda and James Stewart.

At the age of 51 in 1966, when many people are starting to wind down their careers, Wallach’s career was only speeding up. He co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the last of the “Man With No Name” spaghetti westerns starring Eastwood. Wallach played Eastwood’s greedy sometime partner and sometime antagonist. Though he was an accomplished actor by this point, he credited Eastwood with helping him with his role in the film, a note of graciousness that Wallach’s co-stars often noted. As Wallach himself once said in an interview, “The big secret in acting is listening to people.”

In 1967, he played the villain “Mr. Freeze” on the Batman TV series that starred Adam West as the Caped Crusader. Out of the many roles for which he was known, an amused Wallach noted that he received the most fan mail for that one particular role. Into the 1970s, he played a mix of roles in mostly dramas and westerns. In 1980, he appeared in The Hunter with Steve McQueen, his last film role.

In 1986, he played an aging assassin in the comedy Tough Guys with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. He appeared in two major films in 1990, the detective drama The Two Jakes with Jack Nicholson, and as an elderly mafia don in The Godfather Part III with Al Pacino. Wallach continued to appear on film and television well into his eighties and nineties, regularly receiving high praise for his work.

Nearing 90, he released an autobiography, The Good, the Bad, and Me, retelling his stories of Old Hollywood. He received and honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007, but he kept working. Though he had slowed down, he continued to appear in small roles up until the end, always finding ways to do the work he always loved. He passed away quietly at the age of 98 at his home in New York City in June 2014.

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com.